Obviously, I watch many more movies than I actually review on this site. Generally I feel like I have to have something to say, some perspective that’s worth sharing with you because I’m not seeing it in mainstream reviews or on other sites. Usually, I like it to be a good movie that’s not getting recognized, or even a performance that’s worth seeing in an otherwise bad movie.
But every once in a rare while, a movie that is altogether bad makes me reflect on something worth sharing.
The movie in question is The Hills Have Eyes 2, and it is, hands down, a bad movie. Not even a so-bad-it’s-good, grindhouse-worthy flick like Black Christmas. Just bad. But the hell of it is, I was kind of excited to see it. I knew better than to get all pumped up for it, but you may recall I linked to a really inventive teaser a while back, and the more I thought about it, the more I think there is something to be said for the first Hills Have Eyes remake.
Now I know that 70′s pulp purists are jumping up and down about the integrity of the original. Settle down, Craven-ites. Just hear me out. Movies like that generally aren’t my cup of tea as horror films go, but there was a run there where I saw a lot of them in crowded theatres on opening night. I’m thinking here of Saw II, Hostel, and Hills. These last two in particular struck me really as more of revenge films (a la Man on Fire, let’s say) than traditional horror films, albeit told wildly out of proportion. They all use serious, hard-core violence to make your blood boil and your stomach turn as they set up their bad guys for the first two acts. Then the third act involves the protagonist exacting revenge on these guys because they really… really… deserve it.
And the audiences I was with went nuts over those last acts. Even Saw II applies a little bit, as Donnie Whalberg gets the chance to go all maniac cop on Jigsaw, but he loses that game, so the actual ‘revenge’ part doesn’t apply. Still, though, this run of movies demonstrated a level of violence so disturbing that it bordered on offensive to me, and by God it takes some true creativity, even- dare I say it- artistic vision to understand how to use those meager plots to really make me cringe, gasp, and occasionally avert my eyes.
In Saw II, I literally covered my face involuntarily when a girl is thrown into a pit of hypodermic needles. Conceptually and in execution, it was a gut-wrenching turn of events, and because of that it made me a little happy when Donnie started breaking Jigsaw’s fingers. In Hostel, there are two scenes that are cringe-worthy. One is the Achilles heels, and I assume I don’t need to elaborate. The other involves a girl whose eye is being cut out. I saw a couple leave the theatre during that scene (although a number of patrons pelted them with popcorn and derided their weak constitutions as they made their escape). But because of that visceral reaction, we also cheered and applauded and laughed when the bad guys are killed in the end. Critics complain that these scenes are gratuitous, that they prey on teenagers bottomless desire for blood and gore, but I tell you- in the best of these movies- they serve a purpose. That third-act elation is equal to, if not greater than, any Rocky-type sports movie’s come from behind victory.
You heard it here first, folks: Hostel is just as satisfying and artistically relevant as Hoosiers.
But of all of them, the ’06 Hills remake has a scene that puts the rest to shame. It is the closest a horror movie has come to morally offending me, and as it built I found myself saying: “My God, are they really going to do that?” And the answer was yes, they were.
I’m going to lay this out for you because, if you haven’t seen it, it’s hard to believe. But if you’re one of those people who left during the aforementioned scene in Hostel, you may want to skip this paragraph. The setup is simple: typical suburban family takes a wrong turn in their camper and winds up stuck in the desert being hunted by atomic-test-irradiated mutants. The family gets separated, and two daughters- Lynn and Brenda- wind up in the camper with Lynn’s newborn baby. Mutants attack. One tries to rape Brenda in the back of the camper, while the other puts a gun to the baby’s head and forces Lynn to let him… well, I won’t even say it. Then their mother walks in on the carnage and is blown away by one of the most shocking shotgun blasts in the history of movies.
Now listen, Tipper- nobody enjoys that scene, okay? But it is so disturbing that you build up a tremendous hatred for the bad guys, and it pays off in a grueling fight scene where Lynn’s button-down liberal hubby (well-played by Aaron Stanford) beats the living hell out of the biggest, meanest mutant for what felt like twenty minutes. And because of what they’ve done leading up to that fight, because they put a gun to a baby’s head, man is it awesome to see that little wiry dude kick the hell out of them. You take away that scene, and the ending becomes gratuitous. But because it’s there, it’s a visceral and powerful climax that leaves you panting with the good guy’s bloody, disgusting victory over evil. Take that, you bastards. (Some credit should also go to director Alexander Aja, who makes terrific use of the desert setting in creating one of the few “daylight” horror films. His first film, the French slasher pic High Tension, is equally thrilling until the last five minutes, when it falls apart more spectacularly than any film I have ever seen.)
All that is just a justification for my hopefulness going into The Hills Have Eyes 2, which boasts a screenplay by the creator of the ’77 original, Wes Craven, and his son, Jonathan. Given everything I’ve just gone over, how would Craven and new director Martin Weisz raise the bar?
The answer is that they don’t. They don’t even really try. This time around, a bunch of National Guard recruits are sent to the desert to deliver supplies to scientists and soldiers trying to kill off the mutants from the first film. Of course, the scientists and soldiers are already dead, and courtesy of a series of fantastically stupid decisions, a few survivors are soon running around in mountain caves (having discarded the deeply unsettling setting of a fake town built for the purposes of nuclear testing and populated by mannequins in the first one) which inexplicably have sunlight streaming into nearly every chamber as they try to find their way out. There is plenty of violence and brutality as it never occurs to this cast of nobodies to even keep their voices down, given that they’re being hunted and all, but none of it rises to the level of the ’77 original or the ’06 remake (I haven’t seen the ’85 sequel to the ’77 original… wow, does this get confusing), and it quickly becomes clear that everyone involved, Craven included, is just collecting a paycheck on their way to better projects. Hopefully, anyway.
Still, the ineptitude of the whole enterprise made me look back on that earlier run of movies and appreciate the skill with which they were made. Surely, they’re not for everyone, and yes, the biggest part of the audience is teenagers who like to have their dates cling to their arm and hide their eyes while they boldly stare at the screen, even laugh in the face of atrocities. But once you’ve seen a few, you start to understand why some of them work on your psyche and get such a tremendous reaction out of you while others don’t. And then you start to get angry that the money men insisted on Saw III and Hills II and Turistas.
And then you think, maybe they’ll take a wrong turn in the desert some day.